Hillary Clinton’s newly announced opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline places her in the camp of the Democratic Party’s environmentalist base and at odds with labor interests that have traditionally supported the party.
Clinton called the project, which has languished in bureaucratic limbo for seven years, "a distraction from important work we have to do on climate change" during a campaign stop in Iowa.
However, advocates for the pipeline say the estimated 3,900 construction workers that would be employed in building the project—and the additional 38,000 or so workers that it would employ indirectly—is not a distraction, but a livelihood.
"Their jobs are once again being dismissed because of the need for candidates to curry favor from environmental elitists," said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America, in Tuesday statement on Clinton’s announcement.
LIUNA is one of a handful of major unions that has vocally supported the pipeline and called on President Obama to approve it. O’Sullivan’s statement on Tuesday hammered Democratic presidential candidates for toeing the environmentalist line on the issue.
"Now, with a commitment from all of the announced Democratic Presidential candidates to oppose Keystone, the White House can cement its legacy of turning its back on American workers and congratulate themselves on fueling a radical movement that undermines our energy security and takes food off of the table of middle class workers," O’Sullivan said.
He hinted at political consequences for Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom oppose the pipeline.
"Unfortunately, this is what hard-working, middle-class workers have come to expect from their supposed friends, and it is because of this that there will be pause and consternation at the ballot box," O’Sullivan warned.
Other labor groups that have backed the pipeline such as the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had not released statements on Clinton’s decision by Wednesday morning.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka first backed the pipeline in November. "We want to get every jobs issue that we can out and as many jobs created as we can to get the economy going," and Keystone is one of those issues, he said.
IBEW previously called Keystone "a vital project that would create 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs, generate $585 million in state and local taxes plus another $5 billion in property taxes and strengthen North America’s energy independence."
Union backing for the project signals a larger divergence between labor and environmental interests, traditionally two core components of the Democratic base.
Other environmental measures by the Obama administration have similarly rankled major labor unions. The United Mine Workers of America last year blasted Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon emissions from power plants that critics say will effectively shutter the American coal industry.
The regulations "will lead to long-term and irreversible job losses for thousands of coal miners, electrical workers, utility workers, boilermakers, railroad workers and others without achieving any significant reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions," said UMWA president Cecil Roberts at the time.
Labor unions might oppose Clinton’s environmental positions, but some of her key financial supporters have worked tirelessly to sink the Keystone pipeline. Chief among them is Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who spent more than any other individual on the 2014 midterm elections and who is now backing Clinton’s candidacy.
The split between wealthy and middle class Democrats is evident in polling on Keystone. According to a 2014 Pew survey, a majority of Democrats who make less than $50,000 per year support the pipeline, as do a plurality of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. Democrats making more than $100,000 annually oppose it.
Educational attainment also correlates with Keystone opposition, according to that poll. A majority of Democrats without a college degree support the pipeline. A plurality of college graduates and a majority of post-graduates oppose it.
Clinton’s move against the working class segments of the Democratic base comes as some large labor unions hold off on endorsing her campaign in the hope that Vice President Joe Biden will declare his presidential candidacy soon.